The European Space Agency’s Planck satellite has produced the most detailed map to date depicting radiation from the Big Bang. The announcement which was made in March of this year generated renewed interest in the idea of a single image depicting the entire universe, in particular a snapshot shortly after its birth.A decade ago, when I first saw the images, I was struck by their visual beauty and their conceptual clarity – the notion of depicting the entire universe was striking. I found myself drawn to the intermediate images in the process, where the Milky Way was still visible. Inspired by studies of Cosmic Background Radiation, I made Universe Baby Picture, a painting of data from the WMAP satellite, Planck’s predecessor. Leaving the Milky Way visible created a counterbalance to the very strong form of the oval format of the painting.
The oval shape was inspired by the format of the elegant Mollweide Projection, which maps a sphere onto an ellipse while preserving areas (although somewhat distorting the shapes, especially along the edges) – this is the projection used to produce the familiar fat map of the globe showing all the continents at once.
As an artist making paintings from data, I felt free to remap the data to new colors to suit my pictorial purposes. Scientists often ignore the visual implications of the colors they choose, selecting them as though the only meaning that color carries is that of visual differentiation (in other words, that the viewer can distinguish one color from another, and hence “see the data” as clearly as possible). An artist sees color differently – color is embedded in a pictorial language that has vast and rich associations throughout all of visual culture. Color can be associated with emotions, ideas, ideologies, styles, eras, places, etc. For the artist meaning and association cannot be separated from color with every choice of a palette, no matter how seemingly neutral having an effect.
In the case of Universe Baby Picture, I came up with a color spectrum that related to the idea of the infant universe: pink and blue to suggest the colors of the blankets that newborns are swaddled with in hospitals, and chose the image with the Milky Way left in as a “creamy center” (art historian Martin Kemp’s phrase), like some amazing Fabergé egg about to crack open.
The celestial sphere is the area that was mapped using the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite’s data – it is what you would see if you could look out in all directions at once, without the earth getting in your way. In this picture one sees in great detail the anisotropies (the variations in warm/cool color in the image that indicate minute variations in the background radiation) with no obvious structure except perhaps for a tantalizing similarity to the image of the continents.
The data used for this project was painstakingly gathered and analyzed, with all the radiation from known local sources removed. Yet, even a satellite has problems seeing out to deep space in all directions, namely due to the fact that it is embedded in the Milky Way. The challenge is akin to trying to take a photograph of every surface of the inside of a subway car, while standing in the middle of it during rush hour. Despite these difficulties an image was achieved and featured on the front page of The New York Times for the world to see.
For the other paintings in this series I also used the data to achieve different pictorial ends. With Cosmic Microwave Background the Fabergé egg idea is pushed to an extreme by replacing the original color spectrum of:
In the painting Island Universe, I substituted a deep sea-shallow sea-beach-forest-mountain spectrum (such as a terrestrial mapmaker might use to show elevation) for the original NASA thermal spectrum to create an image that suggests the entire universe as a coral atoll in the Pacific.
Paintings are physical objects. The tension between their status as disembodied images and as objects is particularly interesting when the subject of the painting is data. Painting is an analog medium, so when we push past the digital resolution of the original data, we reenter a realm of fluctuation. As paint mixes together, it forms complicated boundaries. In this work I enhanced these borders with drawn pencil lines (using a process of layering and poured acrylic on top of the paint) to depict (imagined) three-dimensional structures that interrupt the two-dimensional concept of the original data. In the detail from the
center of Universe Baby Picture one can see the paint has swirled into complex shapes well below the scale of the pencil lines that I have added to define the primary forms. Just like its subject matter (i.e. the universe itself) the painting reveals structures inside structures, as close as we care to examine them.
Painting and drawing have always been used to explore our place in the universe. Leonardo da Vinci would not have recognized a great distinction between the drawings he made of his inventions, studies of anatomy and natural phenomena, plans for fortifications and spectaculars, or his preparations for his painting projects. They were all part of disegno, the process of both designing and apprehending the world.
As mankind’s collective knowledge grows ever vaster, the age of a “Renaissance Man” or polymath who operates in the “Two Cultures” of art and science seems past. But perhaps there is something to be gained in remembering that art and science are inextricable strands of a single thread of human inquiry.